Retirement Redefined: Are Pensions Enough For Blue Collar Workers?
August 29, 2011

Retirement Redefined

This is part of a Fronteras: Changing America Desk series on the recession & retirement, along with links to useful sites.

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
Tommy Salazar, 48, works for the parks and recreation department at the city of San Diego.
Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
Salazar is responsible for maintaining Ski Beach and its 38-acres in Mission Bay Park.

SAN DIEGO -- “You hear them; they’ll say, you guys are getting a great pension," said Salazar. "But truthfully, I don’t think I’ll be able to retire for a long time. I used to think: 'I'll be able to retire when I’m 55 or 60. Now, it’s like, I don’t know.”

Salazar joined the pension system when he was hired almost 20 years ago, and he’s been paying into the system since. Somewhere around 10 percent of his pay is deposited into his retirement account; the city contributes a smaller amount.

That leaves him with little money in his pocket, and is worried that his pension will not be enough to support him when he does retire. Those $15,000 a year will be worth even less than they are today.

“All these different thoughts start going through your mind," said Salazar. "What do I do now? If we don’t have our pension, we can’t even try to get Social Security, because we don’t get any Social Security. All we have is this.”

Around two in the afternoon, Salazar is close to finishing his eight-hour shift. After one last-minute check of the bathrooms and hauling some plastic bags onto his pick-up truck, he headed to another city facility, five miles away from the park.

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
After a full day of work, Salazar drops off the truck at a city facility and fills out his work sheet to give to his manager.

As a matter of practice, Salazar said he tries not to think too much about retirement; it’s the least of his worries these days.

“I had a vision before, and I lost my house, I ended up getting divorced," said Salazar. "I don’t know, my vision of my retirement has disappeared.”

Salazar is just one of 10,000 city blue-collar and white-collar workers in San Diego, and hundreds of thousands nationwide, who are witnessing guaranteed public pensions become a thing of the past. As they disappear, public workers are likely to end up like their private counterparts: gambling their retirement funds on the market in a 401 K-type contribution plan.

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